Highway 59 runs directly through Mahnomen. With a speed limit of 45 miles per hour and a lack of marked crossings, the highway creates both a perceived and physical barrier to destinations on the other side of the highway. Much of the development in Mahnomen is concentrated on the west side of Mahnomen including the city school, hospital, clinic, city hall and non-tribal housing. The east side of the highway is where the tribal college and housing is located. It was important to the county to make sure pedestrians and bicyclists can move across the highway safely and connect these two main city hubs and populations. Safe access and improved connectivity was created by adding multiple highly visible crossings along Highway 59.
Mahnomen County is the least healthy county in Minnesota. The Mahnomen County Resource Group is determined to change this outlook and “protect, promote and improve the health and quality of life in Mahnomen County.” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health (2009), an environment in which physical activity is prohibitive means that youth inherit a society in which sedentary behavior is the social norm. The City of Mahnomen’s goal is to make the city more pedestrian and bicycle friendly through: newly painted pedestrian crosswalks on Main Street; four “stop for pedestrian” signs placed in intersections on Main Street; a new bicycle rack outside Red Apple Café; a handicap parking sign relocated to remove a barrier in the middle of a sidewalk; and “share the road” signs installed on streets near the school, boys and girls club, and the park.
Improving health through infrastructure
To help preserve the Ojibwe language, much of which was lost due to forced assimilation and forced acculturation, signage around Mahnomen County is being changed to incorporate both English and Ojibwe. Roads, lakes, and rivers are demarcated in both languages. While the signage preserves the language and provides important educational opportunities to both the younger tribe members and the community at large, seeing the language acknowledged is important in creating connections to the culture of the Ojibwe people. White Earth Cultural Coordinator Merlin Deegan articulates that the language can help reclaim the past from within the day to day lives of community members. These signs are a physical reminder of the people, language, traditions, and history of the community, an important tool for building meaningful relationships in Mahnomen County.
Mahnomen County is located in northwestern Minnesota in the White Earth Indian Reservation. As of 2016, 46.6% of the population was White and 43.8% was American Indian. Because of the county’s unique location in the reservation, the county has two government authorities, which means that resources such as schools, clinics, and social services are administered by both the county and the tribe who share duties. “There’s always been…a long history of conflict between the county and the tribe, so it’s been difficult in some cases to be able to communicate and work together,” reflects Julie Hanson, Director of Social Services, “but I think we’re making progress on that.” Festivals, such as Wild Rice Days and Pow Wows in parks, have been essential for bringing together the two communities, fostering positive relationships and acting as a bridge to a better understanding of history.
Finding common ground